Tate Reeves suggested on “Meet the Press” last night that Mississippi has tested “four times” as much as South Korea, the model for Mississippi’s COVID-19 containment strategy. But a direct comparison is more complicated—and more difficult to make. Screenshot courtesy MSNBC.
Appearing on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press” last night, Gov. Tate Reeves explained to host Chuck Todd what he believes are Mississippi’s successes in emulating the South Korean model, which has so effectively contained the COVID-19 outbreak there. “We’re continuing to ramp up testing. Right now we’ve done almost four times more tests than, say, South Korea did. We looked at their model early on—we thought that was the way to go,” Reeves said.
The comparison is not new. Many observers noted—and the governor himself confirmed on March 26—that South Korea’s high-velocity testing and contact-tracing strategy would be Mississippi’s approach to containing COVID-19.
“A lot of elements of their plans are easily transmissible,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said of the South Korean model in March.
The “transmissible elements” in question are a heavy testing ratio paired with an aggressive contact-tracing regime. This means determining where the virus is in any given population and moving to isolate the second “tier” of exposure, cutting off the transmission of the virus even in those who may be asymptomatic carriers.
Reporter Nick Judin takes a deep dive into South Korea's approach to reducing COVID-19 cases and how it does, and does not, compare to Mississippi.
It was unclear in yesterday’s interview what Reeves meant when he said Mississippi has done “almost four times more tests than South Korea did.” The most recent numbers from the Korean Centers for Disease Control put the total COVID-19 tests completed in South Korea at 579,920 as of April 24. Conversely, the Mississippi State Department of Health’s testing numbers from April 22 put the statewide total of completed tests at 55,389.
Adjusting for population, this does suggest that Mississippi has completed roughly 66% more tests than South Korea per person—though not the four times figure Reeves presented.
A spokesperson from the governor’s office told the Jackson Free Press this morning that Reeves’ comment referred to the original testing “target” of 5,200 tests per million residents, derived from the early assessment of South Korea’s testing regime. With more than 55,000 tests completed statewide and a population of just under 3 million, this comparison explains the governor’s math, the governor’s representative said.
It’s not clear that comparing Mississippi’s per-capita testing total to South Korea’s provides an accurate measure of the state’s adherence to that country’s model. The rapidity and targeting of testing proved to be just as critical as the volume of testing.
“If we learned about it later than we did, things could have been far worse.” Epidemiologist Ki Mo-ran told the New York Times.
Aggressive testing in South Korea began rapidly, and the country’s “peak” or day of maximum new infections came on Feb. 29, just over a month after the country’s first detected case, beyond which the government’s containment measures steadily reduced the spread of the virus. New infections in South Korea today are measured in the single digits.
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As the virus continues to spread in Mississippi, and languishes in South Korea, comparing the ratio of total tests on a daily basis becomes less and less relevant. This does not detract from the importance of testing, nor does it discredit Mississippi’s success in achieving a high testing penetration compared to other states across the U.S.
Many other factors wildly complicate the ability to compare South Korea to Mississippi. There is little doubt that South Korea’s method of contact tracing was more sophisticated—and invasive—than Mississippi’s. The outright majority of the cases in South Korea were traced back to a single religious organization, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, a city in southeast Korea. Still, MSDH has displayed its ability to anticipate future hotspots of the virus before outbreaks worsen. The first shelter-at-home order issued for Mississippi targeted Lauderdale County. Less than a month later, Lauderdale has proven to be the most heavily affected county in the state, with 18 deaths and a strikingly high relative infection rate.
South Korea’s geographic isolation, climate, population density, general health, and its laws and cultural norms may have played a meaningful part in the differing nature of the outbreak. The outcome is not yet set in stone, but the most recent numbers portray a wider gap than the disparity in testing. For South Korea’s 51 million residents, there have been 10,708 cases of COVID-19 and 240 deaths. In Mississippi, with its population of 3 million, today’s case total stands at 5,434, with 209 deaths in all.
Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s advice for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.
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Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Seyma Bayram is covering the outbreak inside the capital city and in the criminal-justice system. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @seymabayram0.